On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence
By Lynne Tillman
Illustrated. 161 pages. Soft Skull. $23.
Care work — tending to the sick, the very young or the very old — has long been denied the kind of recognition (and remuneration) that such essential labor deserves. Activists have argued that society should treat it as a social good, affording people the time and the resources to attend to loved ones as needed.
But there’s still the stubborn fact that for some people and some relationships, caregiving will always feel like a burden, no matter how assiduously one might try to manage it. In “Mothercare,” the novelist and critic Lynne Tillman offers an account that is startling in its blunt, even brutal, refusal of sentimentality. “Handling Mother’s body violated her and me,” Tillman writes, recalling how she would help her mother use the bedside commode. “Carrying it full from her bedroom to the toilet and dumping it disgusted me. I would gag, and that never stopped.”
“Mothercare” traces the 11 years after late 1994, when Tillman’s mother began to show signs of dementia. Tillman and her siblings hired a series of full-time caregivers, with the last one living with their mother for a decade. The book is mostly composed of personal recollections, but Tillman occasionally offers some explicit words of guidance for anyone who might be in a similar situation. On finding a physician: “Do what you must to get what you need — careful attention, a listener (you also must listen well), genuine thoughtfulness, candor and truthfulness.” On how to handle a physician’s assumptions: “They can determine your charge’s ability to get better, get the right treatment,” because “a doctor’s expectations can help or hurt your charge.”